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by Archaeology Newsroom

The social function of theatre in ancient Athens

Ancient Greek art and literature were the conventional media for the representation of reality. They did not however remain unaltered through various historic phases but they changed due to the expansion of knowledge and the evolution of political and social systems. In primitive societies the conception and interpretation of the world are based both on the experience of individuals and on the theory expressed by a social group, the latter being always more persuasive and acceptable. However, as the importance of experience increases, art tends to more and more realistic forms; or, to put it otherwise, Greek history and civilization gain importance as opposed to the mythological – traditional interpretation of the world.

The celebrated fifth century and the classical art of the time lie between this development from mythology to experience. Needless to say that when we refer to the new conception of the world and its representation we cannot but recall that the dawn of the fifth century coincides with the birth of the Athenian democracy. As much as the institution of democracy was a significant step towards political freedom (in which more citizens than ever before participated) so the novelties in the arts pointed towards a more empirical conception of life.

Democracy and theatre

Drama can be considered as the art par excellence of the fifth century since its embryonic stage (Thespis’s period), birth and growth coincide with the embryonic period (from Solon onwards), birth and full development of democracy. Democracy from its very nature is, according to Thucydides (2,37,1), the regime that has as a prerequisite the union and collaboration of all sociopolitical forces; drama is also a composite art that requires the creative participation of many artists and combines speech, motion, music, architecture and painting. The audience to which drama is addressed is the body of civilians. To accommodate this audience a new public edifice is created, the theatre, that is also frequently used for the public assembly. Beyond, however, this somehow superficial relation another more essential comparison can be made between democratic function and theatre. In the ecclesia (public assembly) the present and the future of the city were discussed. Tragedy in theatre represented the past. However, this representation was neither static nor was it based on the established common view. Founded on dialectics theatre treated myth in a way that exposed a new version and interpretation of the past. This kind of interpretation greatly diverges from the representation of past in the epos or religious art, and exactly there lies its significance. Divergence in interpretataion was conditioned by the character of the regime ranging from the despotic to the democratic – a divergence obvious in the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides – and naturally by the range of human thought from the naïve to the rational.